RATIONAL CONSUMER CHOICE
Boiling Down Chapter 3
This chapter gets down to the nitty-gritty of decision making. The process of
choosing among alternatives requires, first, a clear understanding of the market baskets
available to you and the prices that apply. Second, it requires that you decide which of
two alternative goods you prefer.
The first requirement can be depicted graphically with a budget line. Each intercept
of the line shows how much of a good could be purchased if all of one's income was
spent on that commodity. The straight line connecting the two intercepts illustrates that
the tradeoff rate between goods is constant, a fact that is true if each consumer is a price
taker in the market and can buy all she can afford at the constant market price.
This graphical model can be shown algebraically if it is recognized that all income
must go to only two commodities in a two-dimensional two-goods model. All of income
(M) will be spent on good X and good Y. The amount spent on each will be the price of
the good times the quantity of the good purchased. Therefore M = PxX + PyY where Px
and Py are the prices of goods X and Y, which then are multiplied times the quantities of
X and Y that are purchased. Simple algebraic manipulation of the equation shown above
leads to the equation that represents the budget line: Y = M/Py- (Px/Py) X
When the income level and the prices of the two goods are known, then the
combinations of X and Y that are available with that income are determined.
Experimenting on a graph with various income levels and prices, varying one at a time,
will illustrate how these changes alter the set of possible market baskets available to the
consumer. Increasing M in the equation above will increase the X and Y intercepts but
not affect the slope of the line. Therefore an income increase is shown by a parallel
rightward shift of the budget constraint. A student should observe the change in slope
and location of the budget line equation shown above as income and commodity prices
are varied one by one. Graphing each change will help you see how the market baskets
available to the consumer are affected by income and price changes.
Next is the task of representing the preferences of the consumer. It is assumed that
1. consumers can decide between alternative market baskets with even very small
changes in composition (completeness).
2. if a consumer prefers A over B and B over C, he also will prefer A over C
3. consumers want more rather than less.
If all these assumptions apply, then it is possible to construct in a space of all
possible market baskets a set of points that are equally preferred because they result in
the same level of pleasure, or utility, as it is usually called. All these points taken
2 CHAPTER 3: Rational Consumer Choice
together are called an indifference curve, because the consumer does not care which of
the alternatives he has. Any baskets to the northeast of an indifference curve will have
higher utility since inevitably such a basket has more of at least one of the goods. The
absolute slope of the indifference curve specifies at each point the rate at which the
consumer is willing to give up good Y in exchange for more of good X without loss of
pleasure. It is called the marginal rate of substitution of X for Y (MRS x for y).
Indifference curves are usually curved in a manner convex to the origin in order to
show that consumers gain less benefit from an additional unit of a good if they already
have large quantities of the good (diminishing marginal utility). These indifference
curves could be straight lines or even concave to the origin if more of a good does not
diminish taste for the good, or if people are inclined to want more the more they have of
When the constraint line and the indifference curve are put on the same graph,
showing all possible market baskets, the maximization process becomes one of trying to
move out to the highest possible level of pleasure (indifference curve) without exceeding
the constraint line, which is set by the income level of the consumer. This movement to
the northeast must necessarily stop when the indifference curve becomes tangent to the
budget line, because any further movement would give the consumer a market basket that
she could not afford. Since the slope of the indifference curve equals the MRS x for y
and the slope of the budget constraint equals the price ratio between Px and Py, it is easy
to see that the following statement will be true when the consumer has maximized her
utility: MRS x for y = the Px/Py. The basket for X and Y will be continuously juggled to
fulfill this equilibrium condition which maximizes utility subject to the budget
Where multiple goods are available, one good can be traded off against a composite
of other goods, which is measured as the amount of income remaining after the
commodity in question is paid for. In effect, the vertical axis of the graph measures the
income remaining to spend on other goods when a specific amount of good X is
consumed. The usefulness of these tools in understanding consumer choice and public
policy outcomes is far greater than first meets the eye. In your text the food stamp case in
Chapter 3 and demand analysis in Chapter 4 will illustrate this point.
(Chapter 3 Appendix) The optimization process can also be developed by using a
utility function statement. Using this method, which in your text is shown as the equation
U(F,S) = FS, a set of indifference curves can be derived. The slope of the indifference
curves is shown to equal the ratio of the marginal utilities of the two commodities in the
consumer’s market basket. Equating the slope of the indifference curve (MU f/MUs) with
the slope of the budget line (Pf/Ps) will show where a person maximizes welfare by
consuming so that the last dollar spent on each item brings the same amount of utility
(MUf/Pf = MUs/Ps). Indifference curve analysis requires a consumer to make ordinal
judgements about which market basket is preferred. No cardinal measurement of utility
is required. Calculus can be used to show this maximization process.
1. Rational consumer choice theory begins with a budget constraint or opportunity set.
a. The slope of the constraint shows the relative price ratio of the two goods
b. The location shows the amount of income that is available.
c. One good can be used as a composite good that can represent money spent
on goods other than X.
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2. Consumer preference patterns are the next building block of consumer theory.
a. Consumer preference orderings must be complete, transitive, and more must
be preferred to less.
b. These qualities lead to indifference curves that are negatively sloped,
nonintersecting, and continuous.
c. The slope of the indifference curves shows the rate at which the consumer
would like to exchange one good for the other. This is called the marginal
rate of substitution.
d. A diminishing marginal rate of substitution is common and results in an
indifference curve that is convex to the origin.
e. Perfect substitutes have straight-line indifference curves and perfect
complements have L-shaped curves.
3. Maximizing a consumer's utility requires that the marginal rate of substitution equal
the price ratio of the goods.
4. Where the marginal rate of substitution cannot equal the price ratio, a corner solution
5. Applications of this theory include an analysis of the food stamp program and gift
6. (Chapter 3 Appendix) A utility function analysis using calculus will result in the
same conclusions that the indifference curve process has set forth.
Important Terms and Concepts
rational consumer choice Cash or food stamps
economic good composite good
flow or stock measurement parallel shifts of budget line
budget constraint changing slopes of budget line
relative price completeness
opportunity set transivity
utility indifference curves
consumer preference (diminishing) marginal rate of substitution
best affordable bundle indifference map
multidimensional plane corner solution
Cardinal/ordinal utility (appendix) Lagrangian multipliers (appendix)
A Case to Consider
1. During Matt’s recent study of his computer market, he was surprised to learn that
nearly every first-time customer thought his software items were priced higher
relative to all other goods than the actual price he charged. An example of this was
Vanessa, who said she thought each item in the software collection was priced at $50
rather than the actual price of $25. She had budgeted $2,000 for the year for all
computer related purchases and had planned to buy 10 software packages at the $50
price. Using the graph on the next page sketch in Vanessa's software budget line as it
would have appeared with her misinformation.
4 CHAPTER 3: Rational Consumer Choice
2. Next, on the same graph, sketch in an indifference curve that represents Vanessa's
preference pattern. Remember that she buys 10 software packages when she thinks
the price is $50.
3. Now sketch a second indifference curve on the graph that shows Vanessa buys 12
software packages when she realizes the actual price is only $25. What is Vanessa's
MRS at her new equilibrium?
4. Even at her advanced age, Vanessa is still learning. She just finds out that a major
software company is planning to give cash grants of $500 to senior citizens with
computer skills if they allow their testimonial to be used in advertising. Vanessa
wins an award. Show this award on your graph.
5. Now Vanessa buys 15 software packages. Show, by drawing another indifference
curve on your graph, how this outcome could happen after the cash award.
6. Finally the software firm changes its plans and now gives 20 software packages of
your choice instead of the $500 grant. Show on your graph how this software value
of $500 makes Vanessa worse off than when the firm simply gave her the $500 cash.
1. One of the following statements describes a stock measurement rather than a flow
measurement. Which is a stock?
a. I am a millionaire.
b. I earn $10 an hour.
c. My weekly market basket is 2 units of food and 5 units of shelter.
d. Our printer produces 10 pages each minute.
e. None of the above is a stock measurement.
2. Which of the following is a correct representation of the budget constraint in a world
with only food and shelter, where M = income, Pf = price of food, Ps = shelter price,
S = the quantity of shelter, and F = the quantity of food.
a. M = Pf (S) + Ps (F)
b. F = M/Ps - Pf/Ps (S)
c. S = M/Ps - Pf /Ps (F)
d. F = M/Pf - Pf /Ps (S)
CHAPTER 3: Rational consumer choice 5
3. All points on or below a budget constraint
a. are attainable with the given income.
b. are equally desirable.
c. represent market basket combinations that exhaust the income available.
d. are described, in part, by a, b, and c above.
The following two questions relate to the budget lines depicted below.
B D Food
4. Which budget line shows the highest relative price for food?
5. Budget line CD
a. represents more nominal income than budget line ED.
b. illustrates that food has twice the relative price of shelter.
c. indicates that the absolute prices of both food and shelter are the same.
d. shows the absolute price of shelter to be more than shelter’s absolute price
on line ED.
6. For the graph of the budget line shown below, which statement is true?
a. The vertical intercept represents all the money available for purchases.
b. The distance AB shows the amount of money spent on OD amount of food.
c. The distance AO shows the amount of money left over after purchasing OD
amount of food.
d. All the above are true.
e. None of the above are true.
O D F Food
6 CHAPTER 3: Rational Consumer Choice
7. If the price of a good shown on the vertical axis of a budget graph is cut in half and
the price of the good on the horizontal axis is cut by 25%, then the budget constraint
a. shifts left and becomes steeper.
b. shifts right and becomes steeper.
c. shifts left and becomes flatter.
d. shifts right and becomes flatter.
8. In a preference ordering exercise in which two baskets of goods are being
considered, it is assumed by indifference theory that the consumer is able to
a. measure the amount of pleasure expected from the preferred basket.
b. say how much more one basket is valued over the other.
c. calculate only the absolute value of the less desirable basket.
d. make no absolute measure of the value of any of the market baskets.
9. Indifference curves that intersect would be illogical constructs because
a. more is better than less.
b. of diminishing marginal utility.
c. of the transivity property of indifference theory.
d. of both a and c above.
e. of none of the above.
10. If an indifference curve is convex from above (bowed outward), which of the
following statements would be true?
a. The more you have of a good, the less you desire additional units of the
b. The less you have of a good, the more intense your desire for more of it.
c. The more you have of a good, the more intense your desire for more of it.
d. This type of indifference curve violates the more-is-better-than-less
assumption underlying indifference curves.
11. The marginal rate of substitution between food and shelter for a given point on an
a. is equal to the absolute value of the slope of the indifference curve at that
b. is equal to the rate at which the consumer is willing to exchange the two
goods in the marketplace.
c. reflects the relative values the consumer attaches to the two goods.
d. is described, in part, by each of the above statements.
12. If food is on the vertical axis and shelter is on the horizontal axis, a set of
indifference curves that are quite steep with respect to the horizontal axis
a. reflect a preference pattern that generally values shelter high relative to food.
b. imply that food has a higher relative value than shelter for this consumer.
c. say nothing relating to how the consumer feels about the two goods until a
budget line is introduced.
d. mean that the two goods are perfect substitutes.
13. On a graph of a preference pattern of food and shelter, food is on the vertical axis.
The slope of the indifference curve at the relevant market basket is 3. If food is 4
times more expensive than shelter, the consumer is
a. maximizing his pleasure.
b. consuming too much shelter and not enough food.
CHAPTER 3: Rational consumer choice 7
c. consuming too much food and not enough shelter.
d. consuming more of both goods than he can afford.
14. You are an avid baseball fan. You root for Baltimore over the Yankees and the
Yankees over Cleveland. If Cleveland and Baltimore play you don’t care who wins.
Which of these teams would you prefer to see in the World Series?
e. unable to tell because transitive assumption is violated.
15. Which of the following is a true statement about rational consumer choice?
a. Diminishing returns negate the usual “more is preferred to less” assumption.
b. People constantly seek to improve their position.
c. People must be able to measure numerically the amount of pleasure they
receive from a market basket of goods.
d. all of the above are true.
16. Which statement about consumer preferences is inconsistent with rational consumer
a. Every additional Hershey Kiss I eat gives me less pleasure than the previous
b. The more Hershey Kisses I eat the greater is my pleasure overall.
c. I’m addicted to chocolate so the more Hershey Kisses I eat the more I want.
d. Although I care about others I never give away any of my Hershey Kisses.
17. An upward sloping indifference curve is logical in rational choice analysis when
a. one item under consideration is junk in your garage.
b. buying more of one item decreases your total utility.
c. a person reaches the satiation point and is inconvenienced by more of the
d. any of the above are true.
18. (Refer to the Appendix for Chapter 3) If Curt’s utility function is U(F,S) = F1/2S,
which of the following coordinates is not on the indifference curve that generates 2
units of utility?
a. F = 1, S = 2
b. F = 4, S = 1
c. F = 10, S = .3
d. F = 16, S = .5
e. All of the above coordinates are on the given indifference curve.
19. (Refer to the Appendix for Chapter 3.)In order to maximize the utility function
U = f(X,Y) that is constrained by the income limit M = PxX + PyY using the
substitution method, all these steps are used except which one?
a. Solve the income constraint for Y.
b. Substitute the revised budget constraint into the utility function.
c. Take the first derivative of the new utility function and set it equal to 1.
d. Solve the maximized utility function for X.
e. Use the budget constraint to find the remaining unknown.
8 CHAPTER 3: Rational Consumer Choice
1. The absolute price of food is $10 and the absolute price of shelter is $30. Carson has
$150 income to spend on food and shelter.
a. Sketch a graph below showing his budget constraint.
b. If Carson maximizes his pleasure with this budget constraint and his
marginal utility for food turns out to be 5, what will his marginal utility be
c. Next, the price of food doubles and Carson's income doubles also. Sketch
the new budget line, assuming that the price of shelter does not change.
2. If the algebraic expression relating income to expenditure is shown as
M = PxX + PyY, show, using simple algebra, that the slope of the budget line is
-Px/Py if good X is on the horizontal axis.
3. The MRS of food (vertical axis) for shelter (horizontal axis) measures the amount of
food that must be received in order to absorb the loss of 1 unit of shelter without
losing utility. If that value is 3, if the price of food is 5, and if the shelter price is 10,
then the consumer is not maximizing his utility. Sketch a budget line, assuming the
consumer has $100 to spend, and draw in a possible indifference curve that
illustrates the situation described here. Then, on the same graph, show with a simple
sketch what could be done to correct the problem.
CHAPTER 3: Rational consumer choice 9
4. You have won a contest where you have a choice between goods worth $1000 and
$900 cash. You take the cash. Illustrate this situation graphically starting from the
optimal point A presented below. (Hint: First, give the consumer $900 more cash.
Then, assume no cash increase but a gift of $1000 worth of merchandise instead.
Next, draw indifference curves that show the consumer to be better off with the
Merchandise $ value
5. Using the model in number 4 above, it is possible to show why some people give
gifts at Christmas and others give cash. Resketch your graph, drawing the preference
pattern in such a way that the merchandise (gift) is preferred to the cash.
6. Carter is rich and has a consumption basket, which is 90% shelter and 10% food.
Jerry is poor and spends half his income on each item. Both end up with the same
ratios of marginal utility for each good. Show graphically how this can be true. Also
explain in words why this would be expected.
10 CHAPTER 3: Rational Consumer Choice
7. Put yourself in the place of a presidential advisor on health care. Show President
Obama, using indifference curves and budget lines, why some people would
recommend an across the board income tax cut instead of a health care subsidy,
8. (Refer to Appendix for Chapter 3 for this question.) Jerry gets pleasure out of going to
parties and playing on the intramural softball team. His monthly utility function for
these activities is: U = f(P,S) = 22P -P2 + 16S - 2S2 where P = parties and S = softball
a. Assuming that Jerry’s schedule allows him to maximize his pleasure without
any constraints, how many parties and softball games will he participate in
b. At midterm the grades showed Jerry failing his intermediate microeconomics
class, so his professor suggested that he restrict his outside events to a total
of 5 each month. If Jerry takes the suggestion seriously, how many parties
and softball games will he participate in? (Use either the Lagrangian or
substitution method to solve this problem.)
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS FOR CHAPTER 3
10 15 20 40 80 Software
1-6. The highest indifference curve occurs with the $500 cash and it brings more utility than an
equal value of software.
1. a, It is the only one that does not specify a time period.
2. c, A correct one is some form of M = Pf (F) + Ps(S).
3. a, It is impossible to know what is desirable from a simple budget line.
CHAPTER 3: Rational consumer choice 11
4. b, The budget line with the steepest slope toward the food axis is CB.
5. d, CD and ED have the same nominal income but shelter is higher priced on CD.
6. d, Do not fall into the trap of thinking that AO is spent to get OD.
7. b, The vertical intercept goes up proportionately farther than the horizontal intercept moves
8. d, Ordinal, not cardinal, measurement is possible in indifference theory. The ability to select
one option over another in a pair is all that is needed for indifference theory to work.
9. d, Compare the bundle of goods at the intersection with a bundle to the right on each curve.
10. c, Increasing marginal utility would be present for this case.
11. d, Refer to the proof of (a) in your text.
12. a, The axis toward which the slope is steepest will be the most valued good.
13. c, The slope of the indifference curve is 3 and the slope of the budget line is only 1/4. Thus
the two functions intersect at a point where movement to the right toward shelter will bring
about a tangency and utility maximization.
14. e, If Cleveland and Baltimore are equal then Baltimore can not be preferred to Cleveland as
would be the case if transivity were to hold in this example.
15. b, The more is preferred to less assumption relates to answer b.
16. c. Increasing marginal utility is inconsistent with rational choice so addictions are not
explained well by the theory without some modification.
17. d, In each case listed more of the competing good is need to keep utility constant so an
upward slope results.
18. c, Answers a,b, and d all give a utility of 2 while c provides less utility than 2.
19. c. Maximization involves setting derivatives equal to 0 rather than 1.
1. a) The graph in part (a) would be as follows.
1. b) Since the slope of the indifference curve must be 1/3, which is the slope of the budget
line, and since the slope of the indifference curve is the ratio of the marginal utilities of food
and shelter, it follows that the marginal utility of shelter must be 15 or else the ratio will not
1. c) As seen on the graph above, Carson can now buy twice as much shelter as he could
before. His ability to buy food is not changed in absolute terms.
2. P Y = M _ P X; Y = (M/Py) _ (P /P )X, which fits the form of a line where (M/Py) is the
y x x y
vertical intercept, _ (Px/Py) is the slope of the budget line, and X is the independent
12 CHAPTER 3: Rational Consumer Choice
3. The graph below shows all the necessary conditions. The consumer should give up food and
buy more shelter.
Slope of budget line is 2 and slope of indifference
curve is 3.
Both slopes are 2.
4. The sketch labeled Problem 3-4 below illustrates the answer to this question.
5. The sketch labeled Problem 3-5 below shows how a corner solution will lead to all gifts and
no money. The steep indifference curve occurs if someone values the thoughtfulness of gift
giving and has a low marginal value of money.
CHAPTER 3: Rational consumer choice 13
6. The graph for problem 3-6 is shown below. Since they both face the same relative prices for
the commodities they will both be maximizing utilities by bringing the ratio of their
marginal utilities equal to the ratio of the prices. Of course, each person has different levels
of total utility even though they each get the same utility from the last dollar spent on
shelter and food.
7. By moving the budget line outward and comparing the outcome to a case where the slope of
the budget line is reduced with respect to health care one can see that the consumer is better
off with more income then when he gets a health care subsidy of equal value.
$ The vertical line shows
the value of the subsidy
and the income increase
and they are the same.
The higher indifference
curve is attainable on the
7. Jerry will attend 11 parties and 4 football games each month until his grade report, after
which he will go to 4 and 1/3 parties and 2/3 football games. He is so committed to his
studies that he will leave before a game or party is over if he has studying to do. The answer
to 7a is arrived at by taking the first derivative of the equation with respect to P and S and
then setting the derivatives equal to zero. The answer to 7b involves substituting the budget
constraint into the utility equation and then maximizing the function with respect to one
variable. When either P or S is found in that manner, substitution into the budget equation
will get the other value.
14 CHAPTER 3: Rational Consumer Choice
HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT NAME: __________________________
1. Your friend is a golfer so you buy him several dozen golf balls for his birthday.
Although he is appreciative, you sense that he would rather have had a gift certificate
at the golf shop. Show this circumstance in a sketch using indifference curves and
2. Herbert spends all $50 of his paycheck on food and shelter which each cost $5 per
a. What is the equation of his budget line?
b. Sketch the budget line and two possible indifference curves that Herbert
might have. One indifference curve should show Herbert spending his entire
budget but consuming to much shelter. Label that point on the graph A. The
other indifference curve should show Herbert optimizing his utility. Label
the optimal point B.
c. What is Herbert’s marginal rate of substitution between food and shelter
when he is consuming his utility maximizing market basket?
3. Draw 4 budget lines for food and shelter as directed.
a. The consumer has $500 income, faces an absolute price for shelter of 10, and
a budget line slope of -5. ( Food is on the horizontal axis.)
b. Given (a) above as a starting point, the price of each good doubles.
c. Given (a) above as a starting point, the absolute price of food stays the same,
but its relative price doubles.
d. Given (a) above as a starting point, the absolute price of food is cut in half.
CHAPTER 3: Rational consumer choice 15
4. Show graphically why someone might logically reject a free good.